I’m working on a project related to Dante at the moment. I’m not at liberty to say exactly what I’m doing just yet, though I can tell you that this particular project is unrelated to printing the unfinished Dante catalogue, which, despite my best efforts, continues to reside in Limbo.
The project I’ve been asked to undertake requires me to be able to explain in a short and understandable way the history of Dante and The Divine Comedy to a youngish (say 18-25) American audience who has, perhaps, never before heard of either the author or his centuries-famous work.
What can I say?
I love a challenge.
Though the works of Dante have an age and complexity that might seem daunting on the surface, introducing Dante to those who have not yet met him is a privilege. Indeed, that’s exactly what I used to do when, as an English teacher, I taught The Divine Comedy to my high school classes. But I also wondered whether I have spent so much time in recent years reading and collecting Dante that I will be unable to speak about him in terms that are interesting and relevant to a new generation.
Like I said, I love a challenge.
To conduct research, I went not to my own catalogue, which is rife with explanations, images, and references, but out the door to my garage.
Why would I do that?
Out in the garage, underneath cleaning supplies and gardening tools, reside two unassuming, grey, four-drawer file cabinets. The cabinets came home with me on my last day of teaching high school, just before I gave birth to Huck, back in 2000. Inside the file cabinets are all of the lesson plans, assignments, tests, and notes on the various courses I taught — English I Honors (freshmen), English II (sophomores), English IV Advanced Placement (seniors) — and the various projects I coordinated (publication of the student literary magazine). I held on too all of these things for inspiration in case I ever return to teaching.
For the past almost-decade, the two file cabinets have stood all but forgotten except for their ability to be used as a place to prop tools and stack supplies. The tops of the cabinets also make a fine place to lay wet laundry so it can dry. I had almost forgotten about what was inside the drawers.
Little did I know that I would be using the contents of the cabinets today, almost a decade later, in preparation for the current project. I pulled out my notes on teaching Dante and reviewed what my nine-years-younger self had to say on the topic.
More interesting than my own thoughts were some of the papers I had saved from my former students.
In addition to reading Dante’s work, writing essays about it, taking tests, and studying related works, my students were assigned one other project, a lighthearted project compared to the other, more academic assignments, to complete before we wrapped up our unit of study about Dante. They had to do as Dante did and create their own versions of Hell. What types of people would populate each level of Hell and what punishment they would receive would be entirely up to the students. The important thing was that they follow Dante’s example and come up with a punishment that fit the crime. Many times, my students’ choices were humorous and realistic at the same time — a characteristic I came to love in high schoolers. They always had a good time sharing the various types of sinners and punishments they created. After the “heavy” reading of Dante and the completion of assigned coursework, they often used their “Create Your Own Hell” projects as a way to let off a little bit of steam about things that bothered them in their own lives — relationships, music and fashion tastes, and the usually stressful college admissions process.
Here are a few choice selections from my former students, some snippets from the various Hells they created:
Dating Hell: The flakes are found in Circle 2 of Hell. These are all of the guys who have ever told a girl, “I’ll call you later,” but never do. These individuals have a phone receiver stuck to their ears for eternity, listening to the girl’s unending crying. Every so often, surges of pain will fill their ears to remind them of the pain they caused the girl they never called.
Driving Hell: The seventh level of Hell is a never-ending surface street with intersections and stop signs every 10 yards. Children, pedestrians, old ladies with walkers, and other cars are continually crossing the street. Here languish the “California Stoppers,” who believe that STOP stands for “Slightly Tap on Pedal”. Also present are the right-of-way violators. Both must drive forever, coming to a full and complete stop at every sign. Each car must wait for the intersection to clear before proceeding. No one has yet gotten past the third stop sign.
Music Hell: Limbo is the home of Muzak/Elevator Music. Circle one is the home of Disco (excluding ABBA). Michael Bolton and Kenny G each have their own levels.
Fashion Hell: Why must people subject others to looking at parts of their bodies that should not be shown? Whether heavy or thin, no one should wear clothes that reveal everything. No one wants to see someone else’s butt hanging out of their shorts or their chest overflowing in a five-sizes-too-small shirt. These people have abused the privilege of fashion and are now not allowed to wear anything besides big, baggy, sweat outfits that conceal every inch of their bodies.
College Admission Hell: Expectors — these are people (usually outside the family) who constantly ask how school is going, or which college applications have been turned in, or which colleges have accepted me. Expectors expect the best from seniors and can’t understand pressure or failure. In Hell, these people will be harrassed by vicious dogs in a dark room, just as they hounded high school seniors about college in their earthly lives.
The thoughts of high schoolers still make me laugh. I used to tell them what Winston Churchill said: “When you’re going through Hell, keep going.”
Wish me luck in completing this new Dante project. I’ll tell you all about it soon.
See you in the stacks!